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Article The Chant of the Coptic Church - Its Character

Page 1 of Article: The Chant of the Coptic Church. - Its Character
Page 1 of Le chant de l'Église copte. - Son caractère by François-Joseph Fétis.

Translated from the French by Maryvonne Mavroukakis
Edited by Jan Lancaster

The Mass of the Copts, as well as their morning and evening offices, are regulated by the same liturgies as those of the Greek Churches of Egypt: one can see, as a matter of fact, in all the manuscripts of the books of rituals of the Coptic Church, that they contain translations of the liturgies of Saint Basil, Saint Cyril, and of Saint Gregory of Nazianze. The Bibliothèque nationale in Paris also owns a Coptic manuscript translation[1] of the liturgy known under the name of Saint Mark. The Coptic chants for the offices are much more developed than those of the Greek Church, because of the custom of vocalizing sometimes for several minutes on a single syllable. The length of these chants is so excessive, that the vespers, for example, last four to five hours. But, the rules of the rite not allowing the Copts either to sit or kneel, they are obliged to lean their underarm on a long crutch, called an 'ekāz and in Arabic Image: Arabic text, in order not to succumb to fatigue. This degenerate people, descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt, are exhausted by the despotism that weighs on them since the conquest of the country by the Arabs (638): they are being extinguished day by day, and their progressive diminution is such that, without doubt, they are fated to disappear in a not too distant future. Most of the Copts have forgotten their own language and no longer speak anything but Arabic. Even among the priests, there are few of them who are educated any longer and who still grasp some understanding of the grammar of their primitive language. Already, as of the fifteenth century, it had been necessary to provide Arabic versions of the Coptic text of the offices;[2] there exist many copies of them made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the eighteenth century editions of them were published in Europe.[3]

There are 10 tones in the ecclesiastical chant of the Copts. It is difficult to distinguish them, except in the preparatory intonation, the melodies often having transitions far-removed from the initial tone. In most of the chants, one ends up losing the memory of the principal tone. We have given a remarkable example of these mixtures of tonality in the first book of this History.[4] The first tone of the Coptic chant corresponds to our tone of mi (E) minor, without dominant note; its scale is as follows:

Image: First tone - E minor
In this tone, the dominant, that is to say, the note heard the most frequently, is the fourth note of the scale. The second tone corresponds to that of ut in modern music: its dominant is the fifth note of the scale. This tone is often blended with the first one in the development of the chant. We believe that we need not show its scale.

The third tone has the low note [which corresponds to] our re (D); its scale has the range of a ninth. The second, the sixth, and the ninth notes are a half-tone of their lower note; the scale of this tone is then as follows:

Image: Third tone
The dominant of this tone is the fourth note of the scale.

The fourth tone corresponds to our tone of sol (G) minor, but more exactly to the third tabagah of the isfahan mode, ninth circulation of the Arabs. The scale of this tone has nine degrees, as we can see in this notation:

Image: fourth tone - G minor

The fifth tone, of which the scale has nine degrees, is analogous to our tone of fa (F) major, except the seventh degree, which is foreign to it. Here is this scale:

Image: fifth tone - F major
The dominant of this tone is the fifth note.

The sixth tone is similar to the second tone of the Roman plain-chant, and its scale is this:

Image: Sixth tone
The dominant of this tone is the fourth note.

The seventh tone is identical to the eighth tone of the Roman plain-chant. Its dominant is the fourth note. Its scale is the following:

Image: Seventh tone

The eighth tone is derived from the fifteenth tabagah of the rast mode of the Arabs: its scale is analogous to that of our tone of fa (F) sharp minor, without dominant note; its dominant is the fourth note. Here is this scale:

Image: Eighth tone

The ninth tone has a scale composed of nine degrees; it corresponds to our tone of la (A) major, but with a seventh degree which isforeign to it: its dominant is the fifth note. Here is this scale:

Image: Ninth tone

Finally, the tenth tone is the highest; it corresponds to our tone of si (B) minor, without dominant note: the fourth note is the dominant. Here is the scale of this tone:

Image: Tenth tone

Two things are to be noted in the scales that we have just seen: the first one is that the tonalities of Oriental peoples are generally high, because almost all the male voices are tenor; the second is that we have notated these scales one octave above the tuning fork of the tenor voice, not to be obliged to use several clefs.

Villoteau, speaking about the character of the liturgical chants of the Copts, says that they are monotonous and boring to the excess:we cannot share his opinion as far as monotony is concerned, since one of the most shocking flaws of these chants consists of a mixture of tones, completely foreign to each other, as our readers have been able to be convinced of it by the Alleluia inserted in the first book of our History.[5] One could see that the feeling of the tonality, established at the beginning, is entirely lost later, and which is proved by the disagreeable impressions produced by a series of intonations so little in common with the others, that no tonal basis can be perceived. But, all of this is precisely the opposite of monotony, which means the absence of variety in the tone as well in the form of the phrases.

As far as boredom caused by Coptic chants is concerned, there cannot be two opinions about them. This effect has several causes: first, the excessive length of the chants; secondly, the insignificance of the melodic forms; lastly the incessant repetition of syllables and vowels of the same word, which prevents one from grasping the meaning of the words. It is correct to note, however, that this last flaw, more exaggerated without doubt in the Coptic chants than in any others, is not absolutely particular to them since it exists also in the chants of the Greek Church. We could provide many examples of it, but one will suffice; we take it from a Hymniary of the churches of the Orient. Here it is: Aga a a a a a aaté é é é é mara ky y y ri i i i i ou. The musical phrase placed on these words is very long: these repetitions of a a a a a, é é é é, y y i i i, which require for each one an articulation of the throat, produce a ridiculous effect. The Copts exaggerate this kind of monstrosity not only by repeating the vowels, but by repeating the first and second syllable of the word several times, and by starting this word again without having finished it, until at last they end it. It is in this way that they lengthen their chants to the excess: a few words are enough for their interminable sequences of sounds, and one can grasp the meaning only with extreme difficulty. To this melodic obscurity is added the slowness of the movement of the bar. The foreigner who attends the religious offices of the Copts, leaves overwhelmed with boredom.

Like the Syrians, the Copts do not have a notation for their chants: Villoteau's researches in Egypt to discover one, have been without result. It was the same for us, after examining in Rome, and at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, a great number of liturgical manuscripts of the Copts where one notices that not a single sign can be considered as having a musical significance. The absence of signs of this kind, for a people whose religious chants have an interminable length is one of the most singular facts in the history of music. It can only be explained by assuming that the Copts are gifted with a phenomenal memory. One might wonder why, having borrowed from the Greek Church of Africa its entire liturgy, they did not take from it the melodies with their notation.

From Fétis, François-Joseph, "Chapitre Septième. Le Chant dans les églises de l'Afrique. [part] II. Le chant de l'église copte. - Son caractère." In Histoire générale de la Musique depuis les temps les plus anciens jusqu'a nos jours. Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot Frères, Fils et Cie, 1874, vol. 4, pp. 96-101. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: ML160.F42.


  1. No. XXVIII, quarto, of the Oriental manuscripts. [back to article]
  2. No. XXV, quarto, in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, contains the copy of the liturgy of Saint Basil in Coptic, with an Arabic version, written in the fifteenth century. [back to article]
  3. Missale copto-arabicum. Rome, 1736, quarto. Pontificale copto-arabicum. Rome, 1761, 2 vols. in folio. Rituale copto-arabicum. Rome, 1763, 1 vol. in folio. Theotochia copticè et arabicè. Rome, 1754, 1 vol. in folio. The Theotochia is a collection of hymns in praise of the Virgin Mary, whose author is a Patriarch of Alexandria, named John, about whom we have no information. [back to article]
  4. Vol. 1, pages 203 and following. The information given here on the tones of Coptic chant is extracted from a small treatise about this chant, in Arabic, which is in my library and has as its title: . In this treatise the notes of the tones are indicated by the numbers of the general scale of Arabic sounds. [back to article]
  5. Vol. 1, pages 203 and following. [back to article]

About this Item


  • The Chant of the Coptic Church - Its Character


  • Fétis, François-Joseph -- 1784-1871 (author)
  • Mavroukakis, Maryvonne (translator)
  • Lancaster, Jan (editor)


  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


  • article


  • -  From "II. Le chant de l'Église copte. - Son caractère." In "Chapitre Septième. Le Chant dans les Églises de l'Afrique" of his Histoire Générale de la Musique.. Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot Frères, Fils et cie, 1874, vol. 4, chapter 7, pp. 96-101. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call Number: ML160.F42 (General)

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